California is headed toward another standoff with the federal government — this time, over education.
The U.S. Department of Education, led by Betsy DeVos, had told the state that its plan to satisfy a major education law had significant flaws. On Thursday, the California State Board of Education voted to send a revised version of that plan, still missing an important component, back to Washington.
The plan is supposed to lay out how the state intends to satisfy the main federal education law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2015 Obama administration successor to the No Child Left Behind Act. Where No Child took a prescriptive, test score-based approach to evaluating the quality of schools, Every Student Succeeds gives states more agency to design their own systems.
Last month, the Department of Education sent a letter to California education officials asking the state to revise and resubmit its plan.
The letter said the California plan fell short on setting learning goals, particularly in high school, and that it used tests improperly and did not create an adequate system to identify underperforming schools.
California State Board of Education President Mike Kirst said at the time that the state would make technical clarifications, but he also stated that there are “areas of disagreement over the interpretation of federal statute.”
California has had a tense relationship with the federal Department of Education for several years now. Gov. Jerry Brown bucked at some of the Obama administration’s policy prescriptions. Education officials said they hoped for some reprieve from regulations when DeVos took over last year, because she supports local control of schools.
The plan they advanced Thursday clings to a vision some board members call the “California Way,” a road map rooted in the unique needs of the state’s diverse student body. It doesn’t so much address broader federal concerns, but rather aims to justify the state’s decisions, according to some critics.
“We have seen no substantive changes to the ESSA plan,” said Carrie Hahnel, deputy director of research and policy at the Education Trust-West, an advocacy group. “It’s clear that California wants to press ahead and is not going to make adjustments because the federal government asked for them.”
Board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon said at Thursday’s meeting that both state policies and the ESSA plan fail to focus on what’s key: Educational equity is still lacking.
“Let’s not just say ‘It’s California, it’s our way.’ We are a great state,” she said. “But we are still missing the mark.”
Kirst justified the revised plan’s approach.
“It is clear that we needed to provide more background and the specifics of the state system of accountability,” he said at the meeting.
The state has developed a system to identify and support low-performing school districts. But the federal government also requires states to identify individual schools that are low performing, as well as campuses with specific groups of students that are struggling.
The state board is still grappling with how to connect these two mandates without having them contradict or making problems appear larger than they are. So far, their answer has been to delay — and insist that state law is more important than federal directives.
“It shouldn’t be about chasing numbers. It should be about what is this doing to improve student learning,” board member Susan Burr said.
Several public speakers urged the state to hew closely to the federal law because the information it asks for is important.
“We don’t want districts to be able to hide a bad school,” said Brian Rivas, director of policy and government relations at Education Trust-West.
The board punted on the requirement and voted to submit the revised plan, without a fully fleshed out method of identifying schools with problems. Instead, members said they would revisit the issue and consider submitting a supplement to the plan after their March meeting.
All board members, except Ortiz-Licon, voted for this course of action.
It is unclear how hard DeVos will push the state to comply with the law.
“We’ve been the leader of the resistance,” said Samantha Tran, senior managing director of education for Children Now, a group that lobbies and organizes activists on behalf of children's rights.
“It’s unlikely that the feds come back with this draft and say, ‘We’re good.’ This could go around for a while.”